Category Archives: News

Getting that MLA proposal down to less than 1000 words

Vallejo: Language Itself [I am not sure this title covers it, but a better one is not coming to me, and this has been improved since I posted it … but I am still interested in the question of the title]

Borges said Quevedo was a poet of language: “La grandeza de Quevedo es verbal” (“Quevedo,” Otras inquisiciones, 1952). His contemporary César Vallejo was a Quevedo disciple in his youth, and some of his later language experiments are more Quevedian than avant-garde. This panel considers Vallejo as a poet of language itself, rather than as an “expressive,” or ethical or political poet as has been most traditionally done. Such thematic readings are essential for a politically committed writer whose work uses a great deal of autobiographical material and also closely engages the intellectual life of his time. But the strong emphasis in Vallejo’s critical tradition on his personal circumstances, his vocabulary of pain, and his leftist politics also works reductively, as does the focus on image at the expense of intertext and sound. Vallejo’s language consciousness is well recognized, but is part of his difficulty still an effect of evading questions of textuality? Our papers present close readings not motivated by the most commonly invoked thematic clusters in Vallejo criticism (orphanhood, poverty, suffering, displacement, mestizaje); we contend as well that a focus on language also reveals Vallejo as a more affirmative poet than he is often considered to be. We are particularly interested in the ways in which Vallejo’s use of fragmentation works to create not a static composition but one that seems to transform itself as it is read. We note in addition that although Vallejo criticized the coldness of much avant-garde writing (“Hacedores de imágenes, devolved las palabras a los hombres,” he wrote in “Se prohíbe hablar al piloto” [Favorables París Poema 2, October 1926]), and while his work has an immediate affective and even corporeal impact, the difficulty of his texts has much to do with their intricacy at the level of intellect.

César Vallejo died in 1938 with much of his major work still unpublished. He has since emerged as one of the most important writers in the Spanish language and as a major figure in world literature. Recent English translations of poetry and prose include Seiferle (2003), Eshleman (2006), Mulligan (2011), Gianuzzi and Smith (2012), and Malanga (2014); additional projects are underway. In 2011 Michelle Clayton published a major study in English; Stephen Hart’s new biography appeared in 2013. Much progress has been made on the collection and edition of his writings in narrative, theatre, and essay as well as poetry. New documentation includes Juan Fló’s discovery of early manuscripts of the later poems (Fló and Hart, eds., Autógrafos olvidados, 2002), Alan E. Smith’s facsimile edition of España, aparta de mí este cáliz (2012), and Andrés Echeverría’s compilation of Vallejo’s correspondence with Pablo Abril (2013). Since most of his writings in Spanish are at last available in responsible editions, research on Vallejo is now possible in a way it had not been earlier.

We aim to contribute to renewed scholarly work on this author who has become monumental without being fully read. We also hope to support the growth of Vallejo studies from an international and comparativist standpoint. This is important since given the translations and the global power of English, it is desirable that Vallejo’s critical traditions in Spanish, English and other languages remain in contact with one another and that the work in Spanish be known outside Peru. In addition Vallejo himself, the traveler with an Andean substratum, writing in Paris about Peru, Russia, Spain, worked from this point of view. Especially with the complex situation of his editions and manuscript tradition, it is essential to follow the networks through which his texts circulate, across languages and borders. The panel engages the Presidential theme “Literature and Its Publics” in that all presentations address questions of readership and audience.

The first two papers offer new readings of well known texts, giving very close attention to verbal play. Pedro Granadós’ “Trilce/Teatro: guión, personajes y público,” focuses on Trilce (1922), Vallejo’s most linguistically daring collection. Granados first shows how Trilce works as a theatrical or performance text, and then considers one of the specific audiences with which this collection enters into dialogue: the journal Colónida (1916) and the Colónida movement that grew up around it. Alan E. Smith’s “Looking for ‘Hallazgo de la vida’” examines the prose poetry of Vallejo’s early Paris years, some of the poet’s darkest, arguing that these are in fact affirmative texts and showing how they work to recover both the human figure and pathos.

The following two presentations focus on translations, adaptations, and Vallejo’s influence on contemporary literature and art. Jonathan Mayhew’s analysis of translations ranges from the earlier work (Los heraldos negros, 1919) to España, aparta de mí este cáliz (1938), drawing contrasts with translation projects on Neruda and Lorca. Vallejo’s modernism, he argues, is characterized not by visual imagery but by what Ezra Pound called “logopoeia,” or the “dance of the intellect among words.” Finally, Stephen Hart examines the poets who commemorated their ‘audience’ of and with Vallejo in a number of poems, focusing mainly on the poems Pablo Neruda dedicated to the Peruvian. His discussion also refers to the novels which have resurrected different aspects of Vallejo’s biography – Juan José Saer’s La pesquisa (1994), Roberto Bolaño’s Monsieur Pain (1999), Luis Freire Sarria’s César Vallejo se aburrió de seguir muerto, Eduardo González Viaña’s Vallejo en los infiernos (2007; English translation César Vallejo’s Season in Hell, 2015) and Jorge Nájar’s Vallejo y la célula Nec plus ultra (2010) – as well as films such as Roy Andersson’s Sånger från andra våningen [Songs from the Second Floor], and Fernando de Szyszlo’s artwork. Questions implicit in Mayhew’s presentation and explicit in Hart’s are what we mean by “public,” and what forces are at play when we talk about the influence a writer wields over other artists.

Papers will be posted online ahead of the convention. In the session, however, they will not be read, but rather summarized and explained. Each presenter will prepare a handout of relevant quotations for the audience, to facilitate assimilation and discussion of their analyses and arguments.


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Alexander von Humboldt

It is true: my great-great grandfather studied with Alexander von Humboldt. He was born in 1816 or 1817, making him a close contemporary of Karl Marx. We know that he and Marx corresponded later, as the letters have been conserved, but it occurs to me that they may have met first as students.

Humboldt was born in 1769 and was thus an 18th century person; people he met include but are of course hardly limited to Thomas Jefferson. Berlin in Humboldt’s time was a provincial town a quarter the size of Paris, and he never liked it. It is said that he was gay; look as well at this charming biography.

My ancestor remained in touch with Humboldt as well as Marx after finishing his studies and returning to Russia. He published on several topics, including the emancipation of people and second language pedagogy, in German.


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The MLA, and a diagnosis, and some fascinating questions

The theme of the 2016 MLA convention is Literature and Its Publics: Past, Present, and Future.

In the meantime, I am told there are two types of academic worker: intellectual knowledge workers and educational service workers. This is my problem: I am supposed to be the former, but pressed to be the latter. It is all well and good to say teaching and research go together. They do: for my McNair student, for instance. But when there are these two tiers of workers, and when the structure of the industrial complex is such that they pull against one another, and when one is both at once, one has a fraught situation to say the least.

In other news, my Russian family appears to have arrived in the United States in exactly 1865. Our ancestor was born in 1816 or 1817, and was living in Michigan at the time of the 1870 census. My great-grandfather was born in 1855, in St. Petersburg like his father the head immigrant, and studied at the University of Chicago; his wife, my great-grandmother, was Helen Beecher (yes, of those Beechers). My grandfather was born in Cook County, Illinois.

There are two points of interest on this today. One is these books: is the author our man (who did have a German PhD and corresponded with Marx, and was an intellectual)? Was it he who also knew Humboldt? (Why is my German not better, so I could find out more easily what his ideas were?) The other point is that there is a record I found and then lost, of a daughter born in St. Petersburg in the 1850s, after my great-grandfather, but baptized in Germany. That means that the sentence to Siberia and the flight toward Switzerland must have started then; I must write my cousin.

Family stories say that it was under Nicholas I that we were persecuted, and this is surely true, but it has to have been from Alexander II’s Russia that we flew.



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Jonathan Rees

I should read him more, and I should have seen this sooner.

To borrow some inflammatory language from Marc Bousquet, the second is a waste product of the first. If the MOOC providers are like meatpackers, then the flipped classroom is how they’re going to get us to eat their offal.

Now, we should look at this. I am quite sure Daphne Kollor is looking at the upcoming devastation of Louisiana universities with great anticipation.


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Michael Pollan

“The brain is a hierarchical system,” Carhart-Harris said. “The highest-level parts”—such as the default-mode network—“have an inhibitory influence on the lower-level parts, like emotion and memory.” He discovered that blood flow and electrical activity in the default-mode network dropped off precipitously under the influence of psychedelics, a finding that may help to explain the loss of the sense of self that volunteers reported. (The biggest dropoffs in default-mode-network activity correlated with volunteers’ reports of ego dissolution.) Just before Carhart-Harris published his results, in a 2012 paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a researcher at Yale named Judson Brewer, who was using fMRI to study the brains of experienced meditators, noticed that their default-mode networks had also been quieted relative to those of novice meditators. It appears that, with the ego temporarily out of commission, the boundaries between self and world, subject and object, all dissolve. These are hallmarks of the mystical experience.

In Carhart-Harris’s view, a steep price is paid for the achievement of order and ego in the adult mind. “We give up our emotional lability,” he told me, “our ability to be open to surprises, our ability to think flexibly, and our ability to value nature.” The sovereign ego can become a despot. This is perhaps most evident in depression, when the self turns on itself and uncontrollable introspection gradually shades out reality. In “The Entropic Brain,” a paper published last year in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Carhart-Harris cites research indicating that this debilitating state, sometimes called “heavy self-consciousness,” may be the result of a “hyperactive” default-mode network.


Regarding depression, which I appear to have, yet not have by “choice” as some think it is had, or as a permanent, organic problem, as do others, but as the result of an injury sustained in treatment for the effects of abuse and trauma and then treatment for the injury that did not heal it — this is a good description of it.

In Reeducation we were, precisely taught to turn the self on itself and substitute research and recreation time with self-destructive introspection. That created this debilitating state or “heavy self-consciousness.” If you suppress reason, as we were ordered to, but also repress intuition and try to follow instructions aimed at making you “functional” in a conventional way, then you do in fact place, and maintain the sovereign ego in a despotic position.

Be that as it may, the description above is good, and the article from whence it comes is fascinating.


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Sur la mauvaise volonté

El mal que aqueja nuestro departamento, según mi estudiante, c’est la mauvaise volonté. Laquelle? –ai-je demandé. Bien, a-t’il répondu: c’est le narcissisme d’un chef, et l’égoïsme de l’autre, que hacen que todos se odian y se agreden entre sí.

Es importante reconocer esto. Mi analista, el real, el de carne y hueso, dice que tengo yo dos identidades –la fuerte y la débil– y que debo asentarme mejor en la fuerte, así rapido acabamos.

Qué más quisiera yo. Pero es que el ambiente no apoya eso.



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MLA 2016

The abstract.

Reading Vallejo against the grain of identity

Taking as its point of departure not only the poetic subject in Vallejo as primordially fractured but the intimations in his prose works that like his contemporary Borges (“La nadería de la personalidad,” 1925) he eschewed the idea of a unified self, this presesentation will interrogate the biographical paradigms that have often been brought to bear on readings of Vallejo. Despite advances in scholarship in recent years, such paradigms still inform much of his critical tradition. How have expectations that Vallejo’s work perform Peruvian, Indian, or other identities in particular ways hamper its reading? What is gained by insisting on his mestizo roots, or by declaring his poetry mestizo? What effect has the emphasis on the meagreness of his Parisian circumstances and his allegedly mournful and martyred character had on the interpretation of his poetry? I will argue that it is useful to formulate alternative views of Vallejo not for purposes of better elucidating his work but so as to lift the interpretive shadow the traditional view of his personality has cast over his texts.

The paper strategy.

1. It is traditional to look at the author and certain (social, political, personal) themes–and to focus on the image. I am interested here in grammar and sound, and joy in language.

2. Many Latin American writers and critics give primary importance to the question of identity and construct a self through the incorporation of a non-European other, but the non-Western elements in Vallejo’s texts work differently. If we examine the possibilities here we may find that Vallejo’s corpus is more joyful than is commonly believed.

3. Hart’s biography is helpful for purposes of shaking off myths.

4. I should choose one poem to study in detail.



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